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ETHNONYMS: Self-designation: Talushon (sing., Talush); exoethnonyms: Talïsh, Talïshlar


Identification and Location. The Talysh are settled in the north of Iran and in the Lenkoran, Astaran, Lerik, and Massalin districts of the Azerbaijan Republic. The territories in which the Talysh live are sharply divided into two different geographic zones: the Lenkoran lowland, with the Plains of Gilan in Iran adjacent to it, and the mountain district of Talysh. The area inhabited by the Talysh is distinguished by climatic diversity, occasioned by three parallel mountain ranges in the Lenkoran regionthe Talysh, the Peshtasar, and Alashar-Burovor rangeswith numerous spurs. Elevations range from the very highest point, 2,494 meters in the Talysh range, to 28 meters in the Lenkoran lowland. The climate of the southern zone in the lowlands is close to subtropical (i.e., coastal). The largest amount of precipitation (30-160 centimeters per year) falls in the mountains; because of this precipitation, the landscape is well wooded. A quite dense network of rivers crosses the region, and the yellow soils are favorable to the raising of subtropical cultivated plants. The Iranian section, which is generally less mountainous, has a hotter and more arid climate. The southwest corner of the Caspian seaboard, populated by the Iranian portion of the Talysh, is covered with 12,000 hectares of dense forests rich in many types of trees including oak, beech, maple, linden, plane, and hazel.

Demography. According to the census of 1926 there were 77,039 Talysh in Soviet Azerbaijan; in the 1979 census all Talysh were listed as Azerbaijanis; in the 1989 census the Talysh numbered 21,914. The drop in the Talysh population in the USSR by a factor of 3.5 is the result of their partial assimilation. Only a subsequent census can more fully establish the number of Talysh in Azerbaijan. The population density in the Caspian part of Iran is about 100 persons per square kilometer. Some 100,000 Talysh live in Iran. In terms of physical features the Talysh correspond to the Near Asian variant of the Balkan-Caucasian Group of the Greater Caucasian race.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Talysh language is close to the so-called Old Azeri language (not to be confused with Azerbaijani Turkish), a language of the Northwestern Subgroup of the Iranian Group of the Indo-European Family. The Talysh speak both the Talysh and Azerbaijani Turkish languages; in Azerbaijan many also speak Russian. The Talysh language is not used for writing at present. In Iranian Talysh territory instruction is conducted in Farsi, and in the medressehs (Islamic schools) it is conducted in Talysh, Farsi, and Arabic. Before the Revolution in Russia the Talysh language was written with the Arabic script; later, in 1930, the Latin script came into use. A Talysh-language newspaper and textbooks were published in the 1930s in Soviet Talysh territory, but the literary language was abolished in 1939. Since then instruction has been in Azerbaijani Turkish in the Talysh schools of Azerbaijan (Bennigsen and Wimbush 1986, 220).

History and Cultural Relations

The Talysh are the remnant of an ancient Caucasian aboriginal population that spoke a language close to Old Azeri; This language is perhaps the "Hyrcanian" of the ancient sources (Strabo). A large number of Talysh were subject to Turkicization (i.e., assimilation into the Azeri Turkish culture) from the early Middle Ages. The Talysh established a khanate in the seventeenth century, following the fall of the empire of Nadir Shah. The founder of the khanate's dynasty was Seid Abbas, by birth a Talysh noble. In 1785 the Talysh Khanate became a dependency of Fatali, the Kuban khan, after whose death (1789) the Talysh Khanate regained its independence. The Talysh Khanate was joined to Russia initially by the Gulistan Treaty and finally by the Turkmenchay Agreement in 1828. Unification with Russia may have served to hinder the complete assimilation of the Talysh into their Turkic-speaking environment.


Talysh settlements situated in the mountain zone are of the compact type of building characteristic of the eastern Caucasus. The settlements in the mountains are not large or congested. The settlements in the plains section have a free layout. The lowlands and the riverbanks are the most densely settled. In the mountains the typical Talysh house is built of uncut stone, with a flat roof; in the forest zone houses are built of wood. In the unforested coastal zone the usual house is made of clay or of rushes with a clay plastering and a roof of reeds or sedge with two or four slopes. The floor is of earth or wood. In the old style of mountain houses, hearths are built of stones in or next to a wall, with no exit aperture for smoke, which escapes through the open door. For this reason doors in Talysh houses are high, reaching to the ceiling. The Alar and Orand seminomads spend the summer in huts, the winter in warmer half-dugout primitive dwellings. In the lowlands the Talysh construct summer dwellings called lam, 3-4 meters in height, consisting of a platform on wooden posts, surrounded by a wooden railing. No furniture is used in traditional Talysh homes. The floor is covered with mats. Modern homes on the plains are of two-floor construction, furnished partly in the urban manner. Talysh dwellings in the lowlands and the foothills usually are surrounded by lawns, flowers, and an extensive, well-maintained farmstead.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The basic means of livelihood for the Talysh is village agriculture, in which the major activity is rice cultivation (chaltïk ); in the mountain-forest region wheat and barley are the main crops. Because of the mild climate of the coastal region, the main crops there are tea and citrus fruits (the latter being grown on the lemon and mandarin plantations in the Astaran District). In the unforested mountain zone (Zevaed, Parnaim, etc.) the Talysh subsist in part by growing grain and in part by raising cattle; some of themthe Alars and Orandslead a seminomadic form of life linked with animal husbandry. In the summer they tend their crops; at the onset of autumn some of them descend into the lowlands, where, until spring, they prepare logs and canes for the breeding of silkworms. Others remain in the villages to clean the rice. Because the Talysh region is well forested with valuable types of trees, the main commercial activities are silk production and the timber industry. For the Talysh of the lowlands, vegetable growing, the cultivation of melons, and other kinds of gardening have particular significance; they trade their produce in the towns of Iran and Azerbaijan. They cultivate garlic, onions, pumpkins, watermelons, peas, pomegranates, quinces, and grapes. More recently introduced crops include tobacco, maize, and tomatoes. In the Talysh forests there are very many gardens that have gone wild, and grapes, apples, pears, and nuts, are gathered there. Among the significant achievements of contemporary Talysh are the building of a network of roads and railroads (220 kilometers from Osmanly to Astara) and the creation of the base for a commercial subtropical economy.

Clothing. The costume of the Talysh is distinct from that of the Azerbaijanis. Male attire consists of a shirt (shay ), pants (khoma -shavlo ), trousers (shavlo ), a short caftan, and a chokho, a type of cherkeska. Women formerly went out into the streets dressed in a white Muslim veil (ruhend ) with two openings for the eyes; the lower portion of the veil was a net of silk threads. They were enveloped from head to foot in a second veil of cotton. The head is covered with a pilyandï, or shawl. Ordinarily a woman wears a cotton or silk tunic-shaped blouse and wide trousers, sometimes belted, and jewelry. Some Talysh women now wear urban clothing. The custom of putting on the veil when going out in the street has been abandoned by Azerbaijani Talysh and today is seen only in isolated cases.

Food. Bread is baked in earthen ovens called tanyu, of a type widespread throughout the Near East and Transcaucasia. The food is basically boiled rice in the form of various pilafs (plo ): yakhni plo (pilaf with boiled meat), sio-plo (with duck), laga-plo (with lentils), shivit-plo (with greens and meat), to plo (with chicken), kishmishï-plo (with currants), and so forth.

Industrial Arts. There are many Talysh artisans, the main crafts being silk production and the production of silk textiles, rugs, and felt, as well as tinworking, shoemaking, and jewelry making.

Division of Labor. There was traditionally a clear division of labor between men and women. The men were occupied with the preparation of the soil for sowing, whereas women were occupied with getting and processing milk products. The metalworking and woodworking trades were men's work; the production of silk carpets and textiles was the province of women. For the carpet trade and silk spinning, the men prepared the food for the silkworms and unwound the cocoons. Some male mountaineers found work as porters (ambal ), woodcutters, and charcoal burners in the lowlands. In the Iranian part of the Talysh region, crafts were preserved better than in Azerbaijan, where the Talysh were drawn to a greater degree into contemporary industrial production and where their crafts suffered strong competition from cheap manufactured articles.

Land Tenure. Landownership was basically communal, but in the foothill regions, where rice cultivation was intensive, plots of land belonged to small families, who had the right to sell or bequeath them. In accordance with Sharia (Quranic law), women here had a share in the land, as well as in the remaining property.


The Talysh preserve divisions into kin groups and tribal groups. The patriarchal origins are mostly preserved in the mountain regions of Talysh. Reckoning of descent follows the patriline, with a kinship system characteristic of the Iranian-speaking peoples. Kin terms are father (nïe), son (zua ), grandson (neve), grandfather (dede ), brother (bul ), sister (nëve), female cousin (amu kine ), male cousin (amu zua ), father-in-law (eve), stepfather (dedelïg ), and stepdaughter (ogeey kinee ).

Marriage and Family

The Talysh family is basically monogamous. Larger families are encountered sporadically. Polygyny is permitted by Sharia, but such families are found only rarely, which the Talysh explain by citing the major role of women in the cultivation of rice, the major crop; this gives them the power to resist competition from additional wives. The Talysh marry at the age of 15 to 20 years (for boys) and 12 to 16 years (for girls), with the payment of a kebin (bride-price), which consists of money as well as objects (a carpet, a brass vessel, etc.). To avoid the payment of the kebin, the groom sometimes abducts the bride. For an early marriage, the parents select the bride for their son. After the matchmaking the parents of the girl invite the groom and his comrades to their home (kon nak'likh ) as guests. When the bride arrives, an uncle or a brother of the groom puts a sash around her waist three times and puts his papakha (fur cap) on her head three times, pronouncing, "Mother, sister, maiden, bride. I want you to have seven sons and one daughter!" On bringing the bride into the house, the groom's family slaughters a ram and throws the head to one side and the trunk to the other; the bride then enters the house between the head and the body of the ram (a purification ritual widespread in Persia, performed when meeting high-ranking individuals). Once the bride has entered the house, a cup of honey is placed on her head; later, seven young boys eat the honey. Among the northern Talysh participants at the wedding customarily give gifts to the groom (money and objects) and announce to the other guests who gave what and how much. After three days a friend of the groom (the dayna ) leads the bride to a spring to fetch water for the first timean important sign of the conclusion of the wedding and the beginning of the family life of the bride.

Sociopolitical Organization

Talysh society is class-stratified. The feudal class is represented by the khan and the bek estate, for whose benefit the peasants and craftsmen bore various obligations. In Soviet Talysh territory the feudal-patriarchal structure has been replaced by new social groups like the kolkhoz peasantry, workers, artisans, office workers, and intelligentsia, a portion of whom constituted the Communist party's administrative apparatus. Characteristic of the southern Talysh are the stronger traditions of village society and the greater retention of traditional social groups and relations. In traditional sociostratification among the Talysh, clan and tribal relationships, serving as mechanisms of self-government, have been well preserved. The sociopolitical structure of the Talysh prior to the unification with Russia was feudal, with strong patriarchal-class roots. The feudal ruler and chief leader was the khan of Talysh. The next level of the hierarchy was occupied by the beks. An important position in the administration was occupied by the clergy, who administered the territory in accordance with the laws of Sharia. The major part of family civil matters was resolved according to Sharia and customary law; the power of the khan as a judicator was limited by laws and customs. Qadis (judges) and mullahs resolved conflicts, as well as cases calling for a mediator. In specially stipulated cases, at the wish of the parties concerned, it was possible to appeal to the khan. The major part of civil and criminal matters among the peasants belonging to the khan or the beks were resolved by the latter. The majority of Talysh peasants (maafi ) had an obligation of military service. The Peasant Reform of 1870 had little effect on the social structure of the Talysh; in Iranian Talysh territory, however, there was an intensification of elements of religious rule and self-government. In former Soviet territory the Talysh are governed by the laws of the Azerbaijan Republic: according to the constitution, the organs of government are the councils of people's deputies, which are elected in all settled points and administrative-district centers. In the 1990s, in connection with the independence of Azerbaijan, reforms are being carried out to strengthen the role of democratically elected members of local government. The Talysh are a divided people, partly in the sphere of the former Soviet political culture and partly in the sphere of the traditional Irano-Muslim world. Nevertheless, traditions of self-rule are well preserved in both spheres. Contemporary reforms in Azerbaijan are further democratizing and at the same time strengthening Muslim norms in law and politics.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Talysh are Muslimsfor the most part Shiites, with Sunnis in twenty-five villages in the southern Talysh region (Astarinski Mahal). Among ancient beliefs the most clearly expressed is the reverence for trees and groves. The oak tree in Mashkhan, where people come even from distant places to worship, is regarded as especially sacred. A second holy oak is found near the villages of Razi and Pmadï, on the summit of Bakhmaku. The holy trees are hung with colored rags. The Talysh populated the world surrounding them with good and evil spirits, regarding as particularly dangerous Alazhan (literally, "the Red Woman"), who attacks women in childbirth and newborn childrenthe Talysh portray her in the form of a black woman with great eyes and enormous breasts, which she tosses over her shoulders. As Shiites the Talysh especially observe the Muharram, the month of mourning, abstention, mutual aid, and help for the poor.

Ceremonies. The foremost festival of the Talysh is the festival of the New Year (Navruz), occurring on the day of the vernal equinox. The Muslim festivals of the end of the fast and Kurban Bayram are also also celebrated. The Talysh of Azerbaijan celebrated the Soviet civil holidays until 1991.

Death and Afterlife. The funeral customs adhere to the general Muslim practice. Among the Talysh the deceased is washed not by specialists but by neighbors and relatives. The body is arranged with the face toward the south and covered in a corner of the grave that is then closed off with short, thick boards set vertically to the wall. Among grave monuments are carved sculptures of rams, with which the Talysh sometimes tell fortunes. Funeral banquets are held on the third, seventh, and fortieth days after death. A copy of the Quran is placed in the house of the deceased, and visitors arriving over the course of the following three days each read out a word. The next world is imagined according to general Muslim eschatology: judgment day, paradise, and a hell with nine circles, the most dreadful of which is the final, fiery circle. Condemnation to eternal torment is reserved for those who have committed the most grievous sins without being remorseful.


Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 262-264. London: KPI.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Izmaylova, A. K. (1977). "Iz istorii razvitiia zhilishcha Iugo-vostochnykh raionov Azerbaidzhana" (From the history of the development of the dwelling place in the southeastern regions of Azerbaijan). Azerbaidzhanskii Etnograficheskii Sbornik (Baku).

Miller, V. V. (1926). Predvaritel'nyi otchet o poezdke v Talysh letom 25 g (Preliminary account of a journey to Talysh in the summer of 1925). Baku.

MAMAYKHAN A. AGLAROV (Translated by David Testen)